Endurance riding is a team sport. The team is the horse and rider and their support crew at the vet checks. The challenges they face are distance, variations in altitude and terrain, difficult going such as rocks, mud or sand, extreme weather fluctuations, time limits and passing the vet checks every 30 km or so. Only the fittest horses with natural talent make the grades…
The vet checks require hydration, soundness and good heart rate recoveries. For the novice and developing endurance horses it is a process of growing as an athlete. For the advanced endurance horse it is a race requiring great fitness and resilience coupled to speed. There are no judges to determine the winners, only the clock ticking off the seconds and the vets giving the nod or not to the horse being fit to continue.
What makes a great endurance horse?
1. Willing and eager, but calm
In my book, character is the number one criteria. The horse must enjoy what he does. The ideal endurance horse loves to run, loves to see what is over the next hill. It must be competitive and want to win, but yet still be controllable. A runaway horse never wins, it will exhaust itself too early in the race. The lazy horse never wins, you cannot force a horse to run that well, and whipping and spurs are rightly forbidden.
In ultra distance events such as 160 kms the horse will feel tired, yet must be willing to go out from base again and again when you ask it. Highly strung horses are undesirable as they stress too much and go off their feed. Endurance horses are transported long distances to compete at rides and are exposed to traffic, strange environments, different water and sometimes feed and frequent changes in temperature. They need to be able to cope with all that, and continue to eat, drink and sleep to keep up their strength.
2. A good ability to make use of available oxygen
Number two priority is big pipes and pumps. How well oxygen is taken in and supplied to the muscles for running and how efficiently the metabolic waste is cleared away to the liver and for detoxification will determine how long the horse can continue at high speed. For that you need large nostrils, wide nasal passages, huge windpipe and big lungs inside a well sprung rib cage. Look out for extremely dished heads, they have constricted nasal passages. Also stay away from fine swanlike necks with narrow throats. I like a windpipe that fills your hand when you grasp it behind the jaw, it must be loose and not bound up with muscle. The type of head and neck that is being promoted in the Arabian show ring is not the best for endurance.
Oxygen is carried in the blood as well, so you need a big powerful heart and large arteries and veins. Heart size can be guessed at from resting heart rates – the lower the HR the bigger the heart size, generally. A narrow chest does not have room for a big heart and lungs. Artery size can be guessed at from the size of the visible veins like the jugular and veins on the inside of the legs.
3. A strong frame
Strength of frame is essential. The framework of the horse must be strong enough to withstand the stresses of long term exertion. Correct leg conformation is more likely to withstand stresses than imperfect legs. However, with gradual conditioning, many imperfect horses become strong enough. Good hooves, big flat knees and hocks with strong tendon attachments are good. Spindly legs are undesirable.
4. Good Movement
Good movement for endurance is related to efficiency and concussion. High action like a Hackney or Saddler will cause too much concussion on the hooves and joints and is undesirable.
Long, low action (without being so low as to cause stumbling) will cover ground with the least effort. A long-reaching trot and a smooth comfortable canter are great assets.
5. Not too big
Size does matter. There are more endurance horses disadvantaged by being too big, than those that are too small.
What is too big? 16 hands and taller is undesirable. The horse will be carrying too much body weight for long distances.
14.2 to 15.2 is the range I consider ideal. As a standardweight rider, 14.3 is my favourite size. Extra weight carried means extra calories to be burned and more oxygen required. If the horse can carry the rider, any extra weight on the horse’s part is a disadvantage.
Heat loss is another limiting factor. Endurance riding generates a lot of body heat in the horse. Overheating leads to metabolic problems, so cooling efficiency will allow better performance. The large horse take longer to lose body heat than the smaller horse. Big bulky muscles lose heat slowly.
6. Muscle type
Speed is important if you mean to win. However the horse need not be super fast to begin with, speed can be built on top of stamina as the endurance horse develops over the years.
Muscle type is more important. Too much fast twitch muscle such as the Quarter horse has will leave the horse in the lurch and tiring as the distances increase. You need mainly slow twitch muscle that can function aerobically.
7. The right breeding
What breeds are best? Without bias, one only needs to analyze the horses that are competing in South Africa to find the answer.At entry level there is a greater variety of breeds, but progressing up the ranks by far the great majority of endurance horses are Arabs, Anglo Arabs, Part Arabs and then the odd exception, such as the occasional Appaloosa, Boerperd, Basuto and Thoroughbred.
The dominance of the Arabian breed in endurance is no accident. This breed fulfils the criteria I have listed better than any other breed. Within the Arabian breed there are certainly bloodlines that are more successful in endurance than others, but that discussion would take all day!
HQ | Issue 62 | September October 2011